July 18, 2019

Obituaries: Jewish Activist Al Vorspan, 95 and Holocaust Survivor Robert Geminder, 83

(From left) Al Vorspan and Robert Geminder

Al Vorspan, a leader of the group that eventually became the Union for Reform Judaism and was lauded as the “personification of Reform Judaism’s social-justice efforts,” died Feb. 12 in New Paltz, N.Y., four days after his 95th birthday. 

In the 50-plus years since Vorspan helped create the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (RAC) and the Commission for Social Action, he encouraged the Reform movement to take stands on issues including civil rights (he was arrested alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 march in Florida), the Vietnam War, Soviet refuseniks and Israeli-Palestinian relations. He wrote that he was motivated to take up these causes because “as Jews [we] remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria…. We know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act.”

Vorspan established the RAC in 1953 because he believed the nearly 1 million Jews who were members of Reform congregations “could be a real force … could transform history” but needed someone or something to bring them together and mobilize them. Working with Rabbi Eugene Lipman, he traveled across the country, organizing congregations and urging them to take sides in the burgeoning civil rights movement. In the process, he attracted leaders of the community to his cause, including future Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and future Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called Vorspan “one of the towering giants of Jewish social justice,” adding that he “blazed a trail of courage and conscience that so many of us have walked…. Our Reform movement and our world are bereft, for he cannot be replaced.”

Vorspan was remembered as a man who followed his beliefs wherever they led him, and who was not afraid to speak his mind, even if it meant offending his fellow Jews. Although he was an ardent Zionist, in 1988 he wrote an article in The New York Times Magazine decrying the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. “Israelis now seem the oppressors, Palestinians the victims,” he wrote. But he also was able to defuse any situation with humor. Many of those who worked alongside him recalled him cheering up colleagues with a joke, then laughing heartily.

  Born Albert Vorspan on Feb. 12, 1924, in St. Paul, Minn., he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In 1946, he married Shirley Nitchun. They remained married until her death this past September. Vorspan’s late brother, Max, who died in 2002, was well known in the Los Angeles Jewish community as a rabbi and a professor at American Jewish University. His nephew, Rabbi David Vorspan, is the founding rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, and founding rabbi of de Toledo High School in West Hills.

Vorspan is survived by his four children, Chuck, Robby, Kenny and Debby; eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Reports from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, ReformJudaism.com and the Union for Reform Judaism contributed to this story.


Robert Geminder had his share of Holocaust horror stories: seeing more than half of his town’s fellow Jews shot and buried in mass graves; being spirited out of the ghetto under his mother’s skirts; being forced to hide alone at a farm; subsisting on leftover livestock feed and raw eggs; escaping from a train just outside of Auschwitz. But Geminder, who died Jan. 27 at the age of 83, is remembered by his family and friends for the joy, optimism and love of people he brought to their lives. 

That’s not to say he forgot the terrors of the Holocaust. Geminder was on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), a leader of Holocaust Memorial Day parades, and traveled the world telling his story, most prominently at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. His love of education was so great that after retiring, he received a teaching certificate at the age of 70 and taught math and science in Inglewood. 

Geminder was born on Aug. 3, 1935, in Wroclaw, Poland, the second son of Mano and Bertl (his older brother, George, was born in 1933). The family owned apartment buildings and lived comfortably. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the family was forced east to Stanislawow (now Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), moving to escape the German army until being forced into the ghetto in 1941. After escaping, Geminder was hidden in a farmhouse and reunited with his family 10 weeks later. In 1944, they returned to Warsaw. They emigrated to the United States in 1947 and settled in Pittsburgh, where Geminder graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1957. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles to work in the aerospace industry. In 1959, he married Judy Strauss; they had three children: Mindy born in 1964, Ellen in 1965 and Shia in 1969.

At her father’s memorial, Ellen said she and her siblings were the “three luckiest kids in the world.” Her father insisted on celebrating all family events, no matter how small. He made their home a welcoming place for their friends — even inviting them along on family vacations — and was a generous source of support and guidance.

His influence extended far beyond his family. Among the lives he touched was that of a young Muslim boy who, after hearing Geminder speak, wrote to thank him for teaching that “it’s OK to be different,” to “love who I am and never change” and to “help my people and country.” 

Widowed in 2011, three years later Geminder met Gabriella Karin, a fellow survivor. They soon became inseparable, and participated in the annual March of the Living trips, during which they told their stories. Michelle Gold, a fellow board member at LAMOTH, said the two of them became “the ultimate example of positivity, hope and dignity.” Karin called him “a beautiful miracle” who  “brought great joy and happiness” into her life. 

Beth Kean, LAMOTH’s executive director, remembered Geminder’s humor and vitality. Even at 80, she said, he could be seen tooling around in a Corvette, an 80th birthday present to himself. Ellen joked that her father was “busier than  (her and her partner) put together.” Kean said that the museum was “grateful to have had Bob in our lives, and for everything that he did for our community,” and promised to preserve Geminder’s story and legacy. “He will be missed terribly, but his indomitable spirit will continue to live on, and his memory will always be honored at our museum.”

The Geminder family contributed to this story.